, Beijing, May 18 – A Chinese court on Friday handed a life sentence to Lai Changxing, the head of a vast smuggling operation who spent 12 years on the run in Canada before being deported last year, state media said.
Lai was found guilty of smuggling luxury cars and cigarettes worth billions of dollars and of bribing officials, in a case that brought down senior military and police figures and tested relations between China and Canada.
The 53-year-old was sentenced at a court in southeast China’s Xiamen, the city from which he directed his sprawling criminal empire before fleeing the country, the official news agency Xinhua said.
Once known as his country’s most wanted fugitive, Lai would likely have been sentenced to death under different circumstances.
But in order to secure his extradition, China issued an unusual promise to the Canadian government not to execute him — a pledge it stuck to with his sentencing Friday.
At least 14 death sentences were meted out to less important figures in the case when trials were held over a decade ago, bringing down national-level military and police officials and a swarm of local functionaries.
Television footage from Lai’s trial last month showed him pale and expressionless, a far cry from the flamboyant businessman who once drove a bulletproof Mercedes that had previously belonged to former Chinese president Jiang Zemin.
The verdict was not given until Friday before the sentencing, which will see Lai spend the rest of his life in jail.
Lai was sentenced to life for smuggling, in addition to losing all his personal assets, according to Xinhua.
The court separately sentenced him to 15 years in jail for bribery, the agency said, giving no further details.
Lai’s organisation smuggled luxury cars, cigarettes and other products worth a total of 27.4 billion yuan (4.3 billion dollars), evading 14 billion yuan in taxes, Xinhua said, quoting the verdict.
This was made possible by paying bribes in cash or in kind worth 39.1 million yuan to 64 different officials.
“The sums involved are unusually large, and the details are extraordinarily serious, meriting the double sentence,” Xinhua quoted the court as saying.
Xinhua did not indicate whether Lai appealed the sentence. The Xiamen court declined to comment when contacted by AFP.
The case, one of the largest graft scandals in communist China’s 62-year history, exposed a tight relationship between officials and entrepreneurs in the free-wheeling port city of Xiamen.
It has received huge attention in China, where corruption is one of the key causes of public discontent.
As the case unravelled in the late 1990s, Lai managed to escape to Canada on a tourist visa, but was deported back to China in July last year after a 12-year battle against repatriation.
He claimed the accusations against him were politically motivated and sought asylum, sparking a diplomatic tug-of-war that tested the countries’ relations.
Lai’s career in crime delivered the material for thousands of media reports and several books, delving into how he paid off officials and entertained them in a lavish private club known as the “red mansion”.
At the time the People’s Daily newspaper — mouthpiece of the Communist Party — said the club, with its sumptuous eateries, ballrooms, karaoke bars, saunas, cinemas and bedrooms, was where dozens of high-ranking officials “resigned themselves to degeneracy and became tools of Lai’s group”.
While he was reviled in the national press, Lai was also known to some as a modern-day Robin Hood who would lavish money and goods on local communities near Xiamen where he grew up in poverty.
The reaction to Lai’s sentence on China’s popular microblogs appeared to suggest many people still thought well of him.
“Smuggling isn’t right, but people here still remember when petrol was just two yuan per litre,” one Internet user said. Another responded: “You’re right. He was a good guy. But only the locals know.”
His trial was open to the public and numerous government officials and Lai family members attended, Xinhua said.